Winter and Pandemic Depression: Perfect Storm for Weight Gain

Relief from pandemic fatigue and the winter season seems to be on the plate.

Posted Nov 03, 2020

“It’s so dark and it is still afternoon.” 

Expect to hear this comment often, as we adjust to standard time and a sudden decrease in daylight ... before we are even thinking about supper. No matter that we are now waking up with sunshine (if there is sunshine and not the cloudy, gloomy days of late fall). When we really want more daylight at the end of the day, it is gone.

Of course, the hours of daylight have been rapidly decreasing ever since the fall equinox sensitized us to the effects of shorter days. Some who are particularly susceptible to changes in their mood, sleep, and appetite notice alterations in their behavior by September, but the full impact is more often felt with the onset of late fall and early winter.

The seasonal depression, called Seasonal Affective Disorder ("SAD"), is unfortunately familiar to many who live in the northern tier of states where fall and winter hours of daylight are significantly shorter than in the southern tier of states. Treatments include exposure to the spectrum of light that resembles daylight after awakening and, for some, treatments with antidepressants. The problem with antidepressant treatment, however, might be an exacerbation of one of the symptoms of SAD: craving for carbohydrates. Indeed, when the disorder was first described in 1984, “…an irresistible craving for sweets...” was one of the symptoms noted. Weight gain is common, perhaps a result of increased calorie consumption that is coupled with the fatigue and excessive sleepiness of this winter mood disorder.

Of course, weight gain may already be a problem for many of us who have responded to the past months of total disruption of our lives by eating too much, consuming the wrong foods, and not exercising as we did before. The summer vanished before most of us had the chance to do the many outside recreational activities we associate with that season, and the fall presents even fewer opportunities, now that more stringent rules regarding social distancing may be imposed. If more pounds are added during the winter as a result of the “winter blues,” we might enter spring feeling somewhat hopeless about losing the weight we gained.  

Going on a diet now would seem like the solution, but realistically, it might be hard to succeed in a weight loss effort during this fall and winter. The best predictor of a successful outcome on a diet is a sense of control of one’s life. If work, family, finances, health, social interactions, and stress are all under control and the future looks positive, being successful on a diet seems doable. But for many of us, being positive and confident that we can control the present and near future is not possible, given the uncertainty associated with the pandemic. And the mood-depressing effects of the darkness, wet, wind, and cold of this approaching winter reduces even more a sense of being in control and optimistic.

The goal right now should be to prevent weight gain. This is not automatic, since the triggers that may be causing the pounds to creep on don’t go away on their own. One enduring trigger is a need to eat carbohydrates, starchy, but perhaps sweet as well. The cravings for carbohydrates seem to be associated with the brain’s need for more serotonin, the brain chemical responsible for bringing about a sense of emotional stability and respite. The brain seems to signal its need to make serotonin by making us “hungry” for carbohydrates. When we eat sweet or starchy carbs (but not fruit), tryptophan enters the brain and is converted immediately to serotonin. Even though tryptophan is an amino acid found in protein, it gets into the brain only after carbohydrate is consumed.

Willpower might allow you to ignore the need to eat carbs, but the lack of serotonin will persist, preventing you from enjoying the contentment and relaxation from stress that comes when serotonin is made. Moreover, serotonin has an additional benefit that will help decrease the likelihood of winter weight gain (and weight gain anytime of year). It conveys a sense of satiety, of satisfaction after eating. 

However, to prevent the consumption of carbohydrates from adding an excess of calories to your daily intake, it is important to know that the amount of carbohydrate needed to make more serotonin is very small, about 25-35 grams. If the food is low in fat or fat-free, this amount of carbohydrate will have approximately 130-140 calories. The carbohydrate food should be very low in protein as well, no more than 4 grams, because no serotonin is made after protein-rich foods such as chicken or fish are eaten.

One or two carbohydrate snacks eaten in the late afternoon, when daylight begins to disappear, and also at mid-evening, when the evening munchies present, should increase serotonin enough to decrease the feelings of depression, irritability, and restlessness that seems to be part of SAD. Willpower should be summoned when choosing the snacks, in order to avoid the allure of a gooey, chocolate brownie or gourmet ice cream with cookie crumbles and caramel sauce, or a cinnamon bun dripping with brown sugar and butter. Salty, high-fat starchy snacks should also be avoided, as once the bag of barbecued potato chips or container of french fries is dipped into, it is hard to resist finishing the bag. One must understand that the objective is not to satisfy a need for a pleasurable gustatory diversion. The objective is to make more serotonin by eating a calorie-controlled portion of carbohydrate food.

Snacking on low or fat-free breakfast cereal is an option, especially as there are a variety of cereals that might tentatively satisfy a sweet tooth without many calories from fat. For example, a cup of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes cereal has 1.5 grams of fat and 34 grams of carbohydrate. A serving of the seasonal version of Cheerios, pumpkin spice, contains 29 grams of carbohydrate, 2.5 grams of fat, and 140 calories. One cup of Post’s Oreo O’s contains 25 grams of carbohydrate, 1.5 grams of fat and 120 calories. (Increase the serving size slightly to get another 4-5 grams of carbs). Low-fat rice crackers, pretzels, and breadsticks are options when a savory starchy snack is preferred.

Eating a carbohydrate as a main course for supper will give an additional boost to serotonin on days when early sunsets after a gloomy day exacerbate winter depression, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, and cravings. Baked white or sweet potatoes with a salad, or a rice and vegetable bowl, or pasta or polenta with sautéed mushrooms will not only comfort the stomach, but comfort the head as well.

Preventing weight gain is a rarely discussed goal, but an important one, especially this year when there are seem to be so many reasons to overeat. Maintaining your weight may be as simple as that next bowl of Cheerios.